HOUMA, La. - There could be a new law that prohibits people from sleeping in parks and other public areas.
The proposal, which the council is expected to approve at Monday night’s Public Services Committee, will then head to a public hearing to be held at 6:30 p.m. Aug. 28 at the Government Tower, 8026 Main St., Houma.
Officials cite numerous complaints from people who say there are too many homeless people downtown.
Those people say the homeless are either sleeping or accosting people as they walk by, said Al Levron, parish manager.
“This is criminalizing the status of being homeless, essentially making it a crime to be poor,” said Majorie Esman with the Louisiana American Civil Liberties Union. She says courts in other parts of the country have struck down similar laws.
Levron said the ordinance is meant to allow officers to rouse someone sleeping in a park for long periods of time and ask him or her to move along.
Should it pass, violators could be charged with a misdemeanor and face a maximum penalty of a $500 fine, up to 30 days in jail, or both.
“It is a criminal offense, and the person could be issued a summons if they don’t heed the warnings from the police department,” Levron said. “Certainly, a person casually taking a nap is one thing, but another person using a public park as their permanent sleeping quarters is not something we want to condone.”
Houma Police Chief Todd Duplantis agrees.
“We’ve been getting a lot of complaints as well,” he said. “The benches are nice and all, but to sleep in one all day, it presents a problem.”
Duplantis said officers will use discretion when determining whether someone is simply taking a nap or is homeless and using the public space to sleep for too long.
The discretion will likely come in the form of a complaint from someone who can attest to someone sleep in a public space.
“We’ll get that information and go from there,” Duplantis explained. “The parks are for people to enjoy and go sit and relax, it’s not an area for people to go sleep all day.”
Duplantis doesn’t expect officers will fine or take anyone to jail for violating the ordinance so long as he or she cooperates.
Councilwoman Arlanda Williams supports the ordinance, she said, for the safety of both the person sleeping and other residents.
Williams also said this ordinance should be a catalyst in addressing Terrebonne’s homeless population before it becomes a “real big problem.”
“I would hope that we as a parish would bring more programs that we can utilize to assist those who are homeless,” she said.
There are resources that homeless people can use, Williams said, such as the Bunkhouse and the Beautiful Beginnings Center.
Beautiful Beginnings, run by the parish, provides shelter for homeless families with children while the adults get work and permanent housing. The center offers private rooms for needy families, not for individuals who just need a free place to sleep for the night.
The only local semi-homeless shelter is the Bunkhouse, 8424 Main St. The shelter charges $10 per night, a price that includes one meal, a place to sleep, a shower and a bus pass to look for work the next day.
Elaine Vavasseur, who runs the Beautiful Beginnings center, said the center has a long waiting list. Moreover, she said she has received more calls for assistance this time of year than ever before.
In the beginning days of August alone, she’s gotten about 29 calls from families needing assistance, she said.
“This is a really bad proposal,” Esman said, detailing similar attempts in other parts of the country.
In Miami, a federal court held that punishing people for sleeping in public when they have no alternative place to sleep violated their right to be free from cruel and unusual punishment under the Eighth Amendment and violated their right to travel.
However, in July, the Tampa City Council passed an ordinance allowing police officers to arrest people they see sleeping in public.
The number of homeless people in Terrebonne Parish is on the rise as services statewide continue to dwindle, a survey indicates.
A February count that identifies homeless people shows 78 adults and 34 children in Terrebonne were either in emergency shelters, transitional housing or on the streets.
This year’s count is 16 times higher than last year’s. The count was conducted by Houma’s Start Corp. and Gulf Coast Services with help from volunteers.
Nationally, the overall level of homelessness remained essentially the same from 2011 to 2012, with the number of homeless individuals falling slightly and the number of homeless families increasing slightly, according to a HUD report last year.
The report, however, suggests the numbers were due largely to local governments identifying vulnerable people and helping them find and pay for places to live.
Moreover, the way the resolution is written is unlawfully broad, she noted.
“So, what does this mean? You can’t take a nap, you can’t dose off?”
Esman said the ordinance would also invite discriminatory enforcement as officers would essentially have to decide whether someone is sleeping or napping.
“What’s the difference? Sleeping isn’t bothering anyone. It’s all going to come down to the sort of person they want to prosecute.”
Esman said if there is a homeless problem in Terrebonne Parish then the parish has other issues that need attention.
“But you can’t criminalize behavior just because you don’t like it,” she said. “This isn’t going to stop the homeless problem. This isn’t going to make people go away and disappear just because they won’t let them sleep. What it will do is create discriminatory enforcement and penalize people for being poor.”